Jun 5, 2020
A functional conspiracy theory uses facts and rational arguments to prove that things are not as they seem. Conspiracism is a conspiracy without the theory. Conspiracism takes the form of a bold assertion without any evidence, even fake evidence, to back it up. It’s an assault on common sense. Prominent examples are “climate change is a hoax!” and “the election is rigged!” Conspiracy claims spread quickly because they require no explanation and are impossible to counter. Moreover, they ring “true enough” by playing into an emotional narrative of fear or hatred. When the president engages in conspiracism, such as the press being the enemy of the people, he imposes his reality on the nation, with violent consequences.
One of the most devastating side effects of conspiracism is the delegitimation of democratic institutions, such as the party system. The notion of a loyal opposition party is key to democracy; without it, democracy ceases to exist. Republicans rely heavily on this delegitimating tactic to hold power, and it’s growing more rampant. Birtherism towards Obama and painting Hillary Clinton as a criminal mastermind are examples of this. By equating Democrats with traitors, as the president has explicitly done, he implies they are not a loyal opposition but enemies of the state. Once delegitimated, violence against them becomes acceptable. This is an old tactic, but one we’re seeing for the first time in the US.
Conspiracism is destructive, delegitimating, and disorienting. However, it has no program, no policy, and no ideology. Conspiracism is now mainly used by conservatives, but it can easily travel across the political spectrum. In fact, conspiracism has already replaced ideology as the dominant political tool in the US. It is critical to speak truth to conspiracism—not for the person spreading it, who is unlikely to be persuaded—but for yourself and others. For starters, it is morally right. Speaking truth also reinforces reality, shows other truth-seekers they are not alone, and creates solidarity. Equally important is voting for politicians who emphasize facts and explain how and what their actions are accomplishing. Lawmakers help sustain democratic norms when they are transparent and make acts of government open and legible.
Nancy Rosenblum is the Harvard University Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government emerita. Her field of research is historical and contemporary political thought. She is the co-author of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, among other books.
Prof. Rosenblum is Co-Editor of the Annual Review of Political Science and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science. She has served as the President of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy, Vice-President of the American Political Science Association, Board Member of the Russell Sage Foundation, and Chair of the Department of Government from 2004 to 2011.